This video has been around awhile, so you may have seen it before. It’s a parody of a specific way of doing church, but of course we all have our own liturgies or orders of service. So let’s have a good chuckle when we watch this, but let’s also consider why we do what we do every week in our church services. And maybe ponder this question: Is there a way for us to get away from the church service as a weekly production or show? Isn’t there a more authentic way of gathering as a community of believers?
In my last post, I wrote about the dangers of a church becoming too large. I’m sure for many readers I was simply preaching to the choir. A lot of believers have either never felt right about megachurches or they’ve become disillusioned with them. But can a church be too small? For many, that might seem like a strange question. We may immediately challenge the idea that “bigger is better,” but then just assume that smaller must always be better. But is this true? Does this best fit the biblical model of the local church?
I served as a pastor/elder of a house church for 3 years, and for most of that time the church met in my home. I’m very familiar with the joys and blessings of a simple church meeting in the home, and I understand quite well the reasons why Christians leave “traditional” churches for this kind of intimate, family-like setting. So I understand and sympathize with the thinking behind the house church movement. (I’ve had many conversations about the church’s “edifice complex,” etc.) But is a modern-day house church or a “micro-church” the most faithful way to live out the pattern of the church we find in the New Testament?
Steve Atkerson is even more familiar with house churches than I am. For over 25 years, he has worked to encourage, support and help house churches and house church leaders. But somewhere along the way his understanding changed regarding the house churches in the first centuries after Christ. He came to realize that the house churches in the early church met in the homes of wealthier members of the church (who had larger homes), and that these large, semi-public villas would have atria that could seat anywhere from 60 to 150 people. This is the kind of house church described in the New Testament and to whom the letters to the churches were written. (For more on this you can read my earlier post or Atkerson’s articles here and here.) This is obviously much different than 15 or 20 people sitting in a modern living room.
But this leads to the same question we had to consider in the last post [about abnormally large churches]: Is there anything unhealthy about churches being too small? And—as with the last post—the question isn’t whether a small, house church can be wonderful and healthy. Again, I know they can because I’ve experienced it! I still have very fond memories of our time together in the house church and the wonderful people with whom I was in fellowship. No, I’ll word the question the same way I did for megachurches (only changing “large” to “small”): The question isn’t whether a very small church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very small churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church?
Here again I’m appreciative of the work of Steve Akerson. His reflections have confirmed some of my own thoughts and observations and caused me to think more deeply about aspects of house church gatherings that I hadn’t considered before. So what are some of these weaknesses of too-small churches? I’ll note some, but first a reminder: This isn’t a house church vs. traditional church comparison; it’s a Roman atrium-sized church model (à la New Testament house churches) vs. the current micro-sized house church model. (Maybe it would be helpful to drop the terminology ‘house church’ for how the church met in the early centuries, and instead call these villa churches!) This isn’t a call to return to a traditional way of doing church; it’s a fine-tuning of what we should understand as the biblical model of doing church. Could meeting as a very small church in someone’s home actually hinder us from living out biblical principles of church life?
Let’s start with a practical instruction to churches in Scripture. We’re told in 1 Timothy 5:17 that the elders who lead and teach well should be financially supported. And notice this is speaking of elders (plural) who are supposed to be well paid. How many house churches today are able to pay even one elder who is devoted to leading and teaching? Atkerson notes: “Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple-making occurs.”
The New Testament churches were not only supposed to financially support certain elders who devoted their time to leading and teaching, they were to be shepherded by a team of pastoral elders. How many house churches have a plurality of qualified elders shepherding the church? Far too many micro-sized house churches don’t have even one qualified elder. Because of this, there is often a lack of biblical leadership and substantive teaching of Scripture. The fellowship may be wonderful, and the people may enjoy and even genuinely benefit from spending time together. But the church is lacking the leaders and teachers God intended to be shepherding his church.
Some newer networks of micro-churches plan from the beginning that all of their pastors will be—and remain—bivocational. They also often stress the surprisingly rapid training and releasing of these new pastors to plant new micro-churches. How are they able to train pastors so quickly? They remove the need for substantive teaching of Scripture. Instead of calling these leaders ‘pastors,’ they’d be better described as evangelists or small group leaders. These groups are actually either cells connected to a larger church that provides needed teaching and training (and so not autonomous churches at all) or they’re churches whose leaders don’t teach the Bible to the people in the church. When one considers the repeated emphasis on teaching the church in the New Testament, this is alarming.
The biblical design for the church body is a community of believers that’s large enough to have a healthy assortment of spiritual gifts. This is the way God intends for the body to grow, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). I think it would be a wise thing for any small church to ask how well they’re living out being a community of believers with a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts. If this is problematic because of the church’s small size, it might be appropriate to ask if the church is abnormally small (especially in light of the actual size of early house churches, i.e. 60-150 people).
We also need to take into consideration the differences between first century Roman culture and our culture today. Not only do we not typically meet in the same large, semi-public villas that the Romans did (which were also places of business, with people often coming and going), but we also usually drive to the place where the church gathers together once a week. This, of course, means we have to park. In many neighborhoods, this can create a weekly annoyance for our neighbors, harming our relationship with those living around us and even hurting our witness to them. These kinds of problems have caused some communities to pass restrictions on regular church meetings in private homes. Instead of railing against these “godless” attacks, we need to hear the concerns of our neighbors and realize that our setting is not the same as the early church’s.
To conclude this post, I can’t do better than quoting Steve Atkerson’s excellent work on this (the emphases in the quote below are the original author’s):
“Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. . . . In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.”
Let’s begin with an obvious caveat: the size of a church doesn’t guarantee a church’s health. There are healthy large churches and unhealthy large churches, and there are healthy small churches and unhealthy small churches. Scripture doesn’t dictate a specific size for local churches. This isn’t an issue of obedience to an explicit biblical command, but instead one of seeking wisdom in how to best live out the purposes and intended life of the church. With that said, can the size of a church adversely affect its health? Is there an optimal size for churches? And, if so, why?
When we consider almost 2,000 years of church history, extremely large churches are a new phenomenon. There have been large churches before, of course (such as Metropolitan Tabernacle in London), but these have been noteworthy because they were so unusual, obvious exceptions to the rule. Throughout most of church history, a church of 300-400 people would have been considered a large church. It’s only been since the 1980s that we’ve seen the proliferation of what we now call megachurches. But, surprising to some, megachurches are still the exception to the rule today. One recent report found that 95 percent of churches surveyed have weekly attendances under 350, and 88 percent have attendances under 200. This compares well with other surveys of church sizes. In contrast, less than 1 percent of churches would be classified as megachurches (having at least 2,000 people in weekly attendance).
In his book The Strategically Small Church, Brandon O’Brien asks why the experience of less than one percent of churches has somehow become the standard by which we evaluate the other 99+ percent of all churches and pastors? Pastor and writer Karl Vaters notes that speakers at church conferences are almost always from very large churches, and he questions just how encouraging and helpful this is to virtually all the pastors attending these conferences, most of whom pastor churches with attendances under 200. We saw in the previous post that the early churches were gatherings of 60-150 people. Throughout history the vast majority of churches were less than 200 people, and still are today. What if it’s so rare to “break the 200 barrier” because the church wasn’t really designed to be any larger? What if the reason churches stubbornly resist growing beyond 200 people is that it’s somehow hardwired into the church’s DNA not to? What if extremely large churches are actually the abnormality? As Karl Vaters asks in his book Small Church Essentials, “What if by trying to fix a problem that isn’t a problem, we’re actually working against a strategy that God wants us to enact?”
O’Brien challenges us: “Until we stop measuring our success in terms of numerical size and growth, we may be unable to accurately analyze the faithfulness of our ministry.” And this gets to the deeper issue. What is healthiest for the church? When are we most faithfully being the church God intends us to be? Certainly, we want to continually see people coming to faith in Christ. The church should be ever growing, but this doesn’t mean every local congregation should just continue to grow larger and larger. Vaters helpfully notes that there’s no biblical mandate for churches to grow larger. We don’t see any place in Scripture where Jesus or his apostles told a local church they needed to get bigger.
But is there anything inherently unhealthy about a church growing too large? Now, let me hasten to say again that many very large churches are good, healthy churches. Please don’t write in the comment section about huge churches you’ve been a part of that were wonderful and healthy. I know these exist because I’ve been a part of some, too! I was trained for pastoral ministry in a very large church (around 1,600 in weekly attendance), and I’ve served in leadership in very large churches. And many small churches are unhealthy. This is not an invitation for small churches to dismiss their own dysfunction by condemning large churches. The question isn’t whether a very large church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very large churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church.
Are there unique problems for large churches? Yes, there are. Some may not be insurmountable, but they’re perpetual. The more dramatic a church’s growth, the more this growth becomes part of the church’s identity, how others perceive them and how they perceive themselves. There will be a natural tendency to begin advancing and promoting the perceived success and image of the church, rather than the mission of Christ. The more the focus is on one key pastor, preaching weekly to thousands of people—especially if his preaching is also streamed to other sites—the more the pastor gains celebrity status, whether wanted or not. It’s difficult to resist taking advantage of this name recognition to draw even more people to the church, thus making the pastor even more of a celebrity and making the church seem even more successful. The more power, acclaim, money and influence a church and its leaders have, the more the danger these things will be abused. This abuse isn’t inevitable, but it’s a very real threat that puts the church constantly in peril.
Some problems are unavoidable for really large churches. Even if you resist making your pastor into a regional or national celebrity, there is no way that regularly preaching to huge crowds of people (and maybe having your face projected onto 20 ft screens) won’t cause people to see you differently. Some friends of mine became part of a newly planted church many years ago. The church was still fairly small, and they became good friends with the pastor. A few years later, the church had grown extremely large. Whenever they would speak with the pastor, others would ask with an awed voice, “Wow, you know ______________?” Seeing the pastor as some kind of rock star—even if only within the context of that one congregation—is almost impossible to avoid when a church gets very large. It’s a radically different perception when everyone in the church knows their pastors personally. That removes the mystique and allows for more genuine ministry to occur.
The biblical picture of the church seems to be one where the people know each other and they personally know their pastoral leaders. They not only participate in the life of the church, they participate to some extent in the weekly church meeting. We’re called to encourage one another, exhort one another and to use our spiritual gifts to build up one another. In Scripture, the teaching we see happening in the church gathering is interactive, with the people responding and asking questions. A church can grow to the point where this kind of life is stunted and obstructed. Instead the congregation becomes a passive audience. Vaters makes a telling observation: “. . . if I walk into a large church, I know what’s expected of me; I will be an audience. Aside from singing along (if I know the songs), I will be a watcher and listener, not an active participant . . .” Many do become involved in ministries in really big churches, but this isn’t the reality for most. The vast majority of people attending megachurches attend once a week (at most) and have little interaction with anyone there. They come in, sit, enjoy the service, then get up and leave. They are a passive audience. If they stop attending, few if any will notice. This doesn’t fit well with the biblical descriptions of the church gathering together.
In the book Jim and Casper Go to Church, atheist Matt Casper questions evangelical pastor Jim Henderson about the way many Christians do church:
“Think about it: How do schools sell themselves? By class size. The lower the student/teacher ratio is, the smaller the class size, the better the education. It’s because you get more interaction with ‘the expert,’ and more interaction with your classmates.
“Why do churches seem to do just the opposite? Why is a church deemed successful by its size rather than its ability to truly teach its people?”
I think these are incredibly perceptive questions. Casper asks in another chapter: “Maybe if the church weren’t so huge, there’d be a better chance to really connect with people. Is this what it’s all about, Jim? Is contemporary Christianity driven by the ‘bigger is better’ maxim?”
Many of us know all too well that the larger the audience, the more we have to make sure the service flows smoothly and professionally. The energy on Sunday morning becomes focused all on “the show.” It even feels like going to a show. [I first heard this comparison from Dan Kimball.] If the operation is a professional one, then parking will be fairly easy. I’ll follow the crowd into the theater where someone will give me a program and show me where to sit. I may say a casual hello to a person or two as I move past to take my seat, but then I just look around and wait for the show to start. Then the lights dim, the professionals come out on the stage, and the show begins. If it’s a good one, I may laugh and cry and be moved. But then the people leave the stage, the house lights come on, and I get up and leave. It’s not that I don’t get anything of benefit. But I’m a passive observer. I’m part of the “audience.” I’m anonymous. I may even prefer it that way. But it’s not the church gathering that the New Testament describes, and it’s not accomplishing a lot of what the church gathering is supposed to be accomplishing.
It’s interesting that many megachurches are now trying to utilize smaller venues. This is often motivated by logistical issues. Communities are now much less accepting of massive church campuses. Neighbors are more likely to protest and resist church expansion. So, many churches are moving to multiple, smaller locations. (And I haven’t even begun to address the problem of pastoral burnout and the many who are under so much stress they’re ready to chuck it all and walk away.)
This helps us answer the question: “What’s the alternative?” It’s actually not that complicated. Instead of hoarding so much of our resources to build one massive empire, why don’t we become a resource? Instead of driving ourselves to build a church of 4,000, why don’t we release others to plant 20 churches of 200 (churches that can be much better connected to and serve a specific neighborhood, and that can provide an environment for spiritual life and ministry that is much more organic and authentic)? Why don’t we decentralize our leadership and have churches that are pastored and taught by teams of pastors (as modeled in Scripture) instead of one over-utilized rock-star pastor? Why not have churches small enough that the people can know their pastors, be discipled by them personally and be able to observe up close their examples of living faithful Christian lives? Maybe we shouldn’t just assume that bigger is better (no matter how much we may personally enjoy it), but take some time to prayerfully consider: “What will make us most effective at being the kind of church the Scriptures describe?”
Some have unfairly condemned everything about megachurches. That’s unfortunate. There are many people serving in large churches seeking to be as faithful as they can be to the ministries God has called them to, and people are being loved and reached and blessed. We need to acknowledge that. Because of this overly harsh criticism, when others present careful, balanced critiques of large churches, they still feel the need to add a disclaimer: ‘. . . not that there’s anything wrong with being a megachurch!’ I think this goes too far the other way. We need to honor each other and the ministry taking place, while still challenging each other to be willing to relinquish any way of doing church that’s out of synch with the biblical model and purposes of the church (even if it might seem very successful).
So can a church be too small? We’ll look at that next.
To begin with, you should know that my first pastoral ministry was in the mid-90s when I co-pastored a house church for three years. This was a dynamic time of setting aside church traditions and looking to Scripture alone to see what it means to be the church. At the time, I fit naturally into the house church “movement.” Along the way, we experienced a lot of the joys and benefits of meeting simply in a home, but also the challenges and limitations. We eventually merged with another local fellowship (which had a building), and not too long after this I moved to another city to pursue more in-depth pastoral training.
All of us who were sympathetic to the house church model were drawn to the example of the early churches. In the first few centuries after Christ’s resurrection the early Christians turned the world upside down with the gospel message. Somehow they were able to spread the faith throughout vast geographical areas, establish thriving churches, and train multiple generations of pastoral leaders, all without any need of a church building. Instead, these believers met in ordinary homes (which we invariably understood to be small groups of 10-20 people—maybe as many as 30—sitting in something similar to a typical living room today).
Now fast-forward to just a few months ago. We have a group of leaders and potential leaders in our church who meet together monthly and discuss church leadership issues. We had been reading together a thought-provoking book titled Jim and Casper Go to Church. One of the authors, Jim Henderson, is an evangelical pastor, and the other, Matt Casper, is an atheist (or at least was when the book was published). In the book, the two authors attend various churches together and then discuss their perceptions of the churches they visited. It’s an intriguing book, and it stimulated some great discussion and reflection among our team.
The authors visited traditional churches, megachurches, emerging churches . . . and a house church. In the chapter on this house church, the warm, simple fellowship they described triggered some interest in our leaders. Some found this way of doing church appealing, and I felt the need for some follow-up. I hadn’t really thought much about house churches for years, so this prompted some new research on my part.
While doing this research, I ran across a name I vaguely remembered from my house church days. Steve Atkerson has been working with house churches for over 25 years. He is, himself, an elder and pastor/teacher, and he writes and assists others as part of the New Testament Restoration Fellowship. Atkerson has drawn together some fascinating information regarding the early church.
First, he points out that an early church would typically meet in the home of one of their wealthy members. We see evidence of this already in the New Testament with Lydia, who was a merchant of expensive purple cloth (Acts 16:14-15); Priscilla and Aquila (1 Corinthians 16:19) who owned a lucrative tent-making business (Acts 18:1-3); Philemon (Philemon 1-2), who was wealthy enough to own at least one slave; and Gaius, in whose home the whole church of Corinth met (Romans 16:23). This makes perfect sense, of course. Why wouldn’t they meet in one of the larger homes?
Atkerson then takes time to explain the typical home in which these churches were meeting. A house owned by a wealthy person in Roman culture would have been much different than our familiar suburban homes in the West. These homes had shops or storefronts in the front with a hall leading back to a large atrium. Off this atrium would have been a business office, kitchen and dining room. Beyond the atrium was an even larger courtyard surrounded by bedrooms and other living areas. These households included servants and/or slaves, and so would have already been fairly large by our standards. A typical day would find people coming and going down the hall, through the atrium, into the business office, and then back out again. These houses would have been much more public than what we’re accustomed to.
Now it gets even more interesting. The early house churches met in the mostly-covered atrium area of the house. In the smaller Roman villas, these areas would have seated 50-60 people. In larger homes, they could have seated as many as 150. What does that mean for us? It means that when we’re imagining an early house church it’s not accurate for us to picture 10-20 people scrunched together in a living room. Instead we need to think of an open area with anywhere from 60-150 people gathered for worship. (They even had something called an “impluvium” in the center of the atrium under an opening in the roof. The impluvium captured rainwater, stored it for use around the house, helped to cool the house in hot weather—and likely served as an early baptistry!)
This is the setting for the churches described throughout most of the book of Acts, and it was to churches meeting in these kinds of spaces that the letters to the churches were written. Obviously, this is quite different from the typical Western house church today. Atkerson (who remember has worked with house churches and house church leaders for over 25 years) contrasts the micro-house churches of today with the Roman atrium-sized house churches of the early church. Ironically, meeting in a modern-sized home may actually hinder a fellowship from following the early church model! (And Atkerson notes that when the early Christians went to their house churches, they didn’t have to find a place to park their cars and risk becoming a weekly irritant to the neighbors.)
So, other than the actual size of the early church gatherings, how big should a church be? Does it make any difference? What are the advantages and disadvantages of mega-churches, micro-churches, and mid-sized churches (i.e. Roman atrium-sized churches)? We’ll look at this next.
I’m always eager to read insights on pastoral leadership, and especially glad to see another book advocating that the church be pastored by a team of elders. The author of this book is obviously knowledgable and has a heart for the local church. He gives a capable defense of biblical eldership, and also includes a helpful explanation of the historical development of the church. Witmer begins with local churches being pastored by elders (the New Testament model), and shows how this morphed into the Roman Catholic episcopal model. He then describes in great detail the polity changes in Calvin’s church in Geneva and the Presbyterian church in Scotland.
The heart of the book is a section divided into four chapters, each on a different aspect of shepherding the church: knowing the sheep, feeding the sheep, leading the sheep, and protecting the sheep. Along the way, the author includes both biblical principles and practical applications. As with any book that makes practical suggestions, some will resonate and some won’t, but it can be worthwhile to think through (and discuss) any of them.
Potential readers should be aware of the theological context from which this book comes. The author is a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, served as a pastor of a Presbyterian church (PCA) for more than twenty-five years, and writes from a distinctly Presbyterian perspective. I think it’s entirely appropriate for our approaches to ministry and church leadership to be grounded solidly in our theology. But, because of this, it’s helpful to know the theological presuppositions of an author whose book we may read. For instance, one will notice Calvinistic assumptions peppered throughout this book. This doesn’t make the book unusable for non-Calvinists, but it’s helpful to know about this context beforehand.
A more salient concern is the specifically Presbyterian model of eldership put forward in this book. As a Presbyterian, Witmer sees a sharp dichotomy in the church eldership between lay “ruling elders” and professional, seminary-trained “teaching elders” (often referred to as “pastors”). Most non-Presbyterians would view this as based on Presbyterian tradition rather than scriptural exegesis. The only passage that comes anywhere close to this idea is 1 Timothy 5:17. In my view, and the view of a great many others, this text simply does not establish two distinct kinds of elders. All elders lead and are able to teach; some elders lead well (whether because of gifting, devotion, or availability); some of the elders who lead well (“especially those who…”) devote themselves to studying the Word and teaching. To somehow conclude from this the normative need for “ruling elders” who don’t publicly teach and “teaching elders” who don’t rule is to go far beyond the text itself.
And this problematic distinction among the elders leads to other problems. It doesn’t take long to begin seeing in this book an expectation that each church will have one “teaching elder” (despite the fact that 1 Timothy 5:17 refers to plural elders doing this teaching). It also becomes apparent that this teaching elder is often referred to as the pastor, so it’s not a big step to later references in the book to “the pastor” and “his elders.” By introducing a distinct classification of the elders that is not warranted by the text of Scripture, those who hold this model end up militating against the very plural shepherd (i.e. pastor) model they intend to defend and practice. Because of this prominent deviation from what I understand to be biblical eldership, I can’t recommend this book.
It’s been far too long since I was blogging regularly. There are a few reasons for this, some more legitimate than others. Kelley and I have been through some huge changes in the last few years: moving from Puerto Rico back to the States, trying to get settled in the Placerville area, eventually moving to Sacramento to help The Orchard begin an intensive period of replanting and revitalization, as well as other studies and responsibilities that have occupied my time. But I’ve also felt a draw to be back here posting and interacting. I don’t know how unique my contributions are, but I do feel I should be utilizing this medium and investing my gifting as best I can. So, I’m not guaranteeing anything, but I’m going to try to begin posting again at least somewhat regularly. Stay tuned!
A few years ago, I wrote: Why we don’t have a senior pastor. In this post I explained why many Christians are committed to a leadership model of plural eldership. I showed how there is a consistent pattern throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by a council of elders, with no elder distinguished from the rest as a “senior” or “lead” pastor/elder. I followed up this article with a series of posts addressing various challenges to this leadership model. A few days ago, a reader emailed me asking about the angels in Revelation 2-3. This question warrants being included in this series, so let’s take a look.
In Revelation chapters 2-3, John is instructed to write seven letters to seven specific churches. Each letter is entrusted to the “angel” of the intended church. Some see these angels as indicating the senior pastor of each church. Does this work?
We should make a couple of observations right at the outset. The commentaries are all over the place on who these angels are. Some don’t address the question at all; most others describe various possible interpretations, while maybe leaning toward one. The only consensus seems to be that there is insufficient basis here for being dogmatic about the identity of these angels.
I would also note this claim (that these angels = senior pastors) is very rarely used by scholars and pastors arguing for a normative senior pastor type role. In fact, many of those who support a senior pastor role have specifically rejected this interpretation of Revelation. Let’s see why.
First, let’s remember the first three rules of biblical interpretation: context, context, context. Where are these references? In the book of Revelation. What do we know about Revelation? Revelation is a kind of writing know as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic literature was always highly figurative, utilizing elaborate symbolism. Readers were to assume that elements were symbolic unless there was a clear reason to take them literally.
Do we see this in Revelation? Absolutely. Right from the first chapter, we have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, stars that aren’t literal stars, and a two-edged sword that isn’t a literal sword. Often the text doesn’t tell us what the various symbols symbolize, and so we discuss and debate what they mean. (What exactly do the two witnesses, the mark of the beast, the great prostitute, etc., represent?) Fortunately, we’re sometimes given the meaning of the symbols. So, for instance, we’re told that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the seven stars represent the angels (or messengers) of these seven churches.
While Revelation is filled with symbols that represent something real, what we don’t see are symbols of symbols. If the great dragon represents Satan, then that’s it. We don’t have to debate what Satan then represents. The Lamb who was slain is a symbol for Jesus, but Jesus is not a symbol for anything else. So the seven lampstands symbolize seven churches, which do not then symbolize anything else. And the seven stars represent the aggelos of each of these churches. We don’t have to figure out what these aggeloi (the plural form of aggelos) symbolize; we just need to make sure we understand what the word means.
Each letter to one of the seven churches begins the same way: “Write this letter to the aggelos of the church in ____________ .” This Greek word is found over 170 times in the New Testament. It’s almost always translated “angel.” A few times it indicates a human “messenger.” So this now shows us the key interpretive question for these references: Are these aggeloi angels or human messengers? And this is where the scholars disagree.
Notice that—either way—the letters are not written to a single leader or messenger, but to the entire church of Ephesus, Smyrna, etc. (“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”) Each church is either commended or confronted, not a sole leader. The “you” being addressed in the letters is plural. But to whom are these letters entrusted: angels or human messengers?
Could these be literal angels? This isn’t as odd as it sounds, and many scholars think this natural reading is the best one. Remember our context is within the book of Revelation. And Revelation states at the very beginning:
“He [Jesus Christ] sent an angel to present this revelation to his servant John”
If an angel was part of Christ conveying this revelation to John, why would it be odd for angels to be part of conveying the letters to the seven churches (which are included in the revelation)? The word aggelos is used over 60 times in the book of Revelation; every time (besides these chapters) it means “angel.” We also have the intriguing references in Daniel 10 that seem to indicate there are angels assigned to certain nations. Some also point to passages such as Matthew 18:10 and Acts 12:15 that hint at the idea of a guardian angel for each person. Is it such a stretch to think that each church would enjoy the protection and service of a specific angel?
But how would angels be involved with the delivery of these letters? Well, remember that Revelation is written in a highly stylized, dramatic form. It also depicts a heavenly, spiritual perspective of these events, not a primarily human one. Unless we want to assume that angels have no real part in human events, we shouldn’t too quickly reject the idea of angelic involvement in the revelation of these letters to these seven, specific churches.
Ok, but could these be human messengers? That’s certainly a plausible interpretation of these passages. Let’s assume these passages are, in fact, speaking of human messengers. What could these chapters tell us about these human messengers? Well, they would tell us there was one messenger designated for each church, and that each letter was written to the whole church but entrusted to a messenger. That’s it. There is nothing in these chapters indicating a leadership or pastoral role for these angels or messengers. Because there is one angel/messenger designated for each church, some have read back into this passage our traditional practice of having one main pastor for each church. But nothing in the text indicates such a role.
Are there any reasons we should not see these messengers as senior pastors? Well, first we observe that the word aggelos is never used anywhere else in the New Testament to indicate a church leadership role. Next, as we saw above, there is nothing in the context that would clearly and directly indicate a senior pastor role. (Actually, in the context of the New Testament church, if these were human messengers, they would more likely be exercising a prophetic role than a pastoral one. They may have simply been the people responsible for physically carrying the letters to the churches.) And this interpretation would be introducing a senior pastor role that isn’t even mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and one that would conflict with the consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament of churches being pastored by groups of elders with no designated senior leader. (Notice that none of the New Testament epistles [letters to the churches] are addressed to the “pastor” of the church of Corinth or Philippi, etc.)
There’s a principle of biblical interpretation that says: ‘Clear passages in Scripture help us understand the passages that aren’t so clear.’ It makes sense to take the clear and consistent pattern we see throughout the New Testament as the model we’re to follow. But it makes poor sense to take an ambiguous passage in a highly symbolic book, form a conclusion—not from the reading of the text, but based on pure speculation—then use this questionable assertion to challenge the clear, consistent pattern found elsewhere in Scripture. This would be circular reasoning—assuming the senior pastor role when interpreting the passage, and then using the passage to establish the senior pastor role!
Regardless of whether we understand the aggeloi in Revelation 1-3 as angels or human messengers, there is nothing in these passages that point to a senior pastor role in the churches.
This should be my last post on this tragic election cycle. I am definitely ready to focus on other subjects! But a report has been released that I find profoundly disappointing and disturbing, though not that surprising. People were asked whether an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life. This survey was conducted in June of 2011 and again last month. Here are some of the results:
As you can see the biggest change—by far—was in the responses of white evangelical Christians. In 2011, only 30% of white evangelicals agreed that an elected official could commit an immoral act in private but still behave ethically and faithfully fulfill their duties. In 2016, that percentage flip-flopped by 42%, going from 30% to 72% in five years. We went from being the demographic with the fewest yes answers to this question to the one with the most (even more than Democrats, who were at 61% yes answers).
As you might have guessed, the media are widely reporting that the moral character of political candidates is no longer an issue for white evangelical voters. And one would be hard pressed to fault them for observing this. What caused such a dramatic change in evangelical convictions this year? Donald Trump.
In 1998, it was revealed that Bill Clinton had been conducting an adulterous affair (amid widespread allegations of many more). Conservative evangelicals were virtually unanimous in their condemnations of these actions. A common refrain at the time was: “If he’ll cheat on his wife, he’ll cheat on the country.” In September of 1998, prominent evangelical leader James Dobson wrote a letter publicly expressing his concern for our nation. Here are some excerpts:
“As it turns out, character DOES matter. . . . How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. . . .
“I just don’t understand it. Why aren’t parents more concerned about what their children are hearing about the President’s behavior? Are moms and dads not embarrassed by what is occurring? At any given time, 40 percent of the nation’s children list the President of the United States as the person they most admire. What are they learning from Mr. Clinton? What have we taught our boys about respecting women? What have our little girls learned about men? . . .
“I am left to conclude from these opinions that our greatest problem is not in the Oval Office. It is with the people of this land! We have lost our ability to discern the difference between right and wrong. . . . We are facing a profound moral crisis — not only because one man has disgraced us — but because our people no longer recognize the nature of evil. And when a nation reaches that state of depravity — judgment is a certainty.”
Stirring words, aren’t they? Many of Bill Clinton’s defenders tried to downplay his moral problems by insisting we are “electing not clergy but political leaders.” Dobson quoted them in his letter, and made very clear he didn’t buy this defense. Now compare Dobson’s strong moral stance then to what he says about Donald Trump now:
“I don’t vote for candidates . . . Policy is what matters. . . .
“His rhetoric has been inexcusable, and I don’t defend it. . . . There are obviously characteristics of Trump that I wish I could change. However, I believe he is the best candidate available, period. . . .
“I’m not under any illusions that he is an outstanding moral example . . . It’s a cliché but true: We are electing a commander-in-chief, not a theologian-in-chief.”
Since the tape was revealed—with Donald Trump grotesquely boasting of sexually assaulting women—Dobson has affirmed his endorsement of Trump. But is he the only one who’s relinquished their previous standards?
Pat Robertson condemned Bill Clinton as being “debauched, debased and defamed,” said that resignation would be too easy for him and that, “We need to prove to the American people that our elected officials have the courage and the love of country to do what is right for America [referring to impeaching Clinton].” And what does he say of Donald Trump? Three days ago Robertson told Trump, “You inspire us all.”
Ralph Reed and Gary Bauer both led the charge against Bill Clinton because of his lack of character. Both are now publicly supporting Donald Trump. They, and many other evangelical leaders, made strong statements opposing Bill Clinton because of his lack of moral character. So it’s fairly easy to compile a list contrasting many of these evangelical leaders’ opposition to Bill Clinton because of his character with their current support of Donald Trump despite his character, often using the very same arguments used by Bill Clinton’s defenders. (The press has already published a few such comparisons, and you can be assured more are on the way.)
Of course, a great many evangelical leaders are refusing to change their views:
“If I were to support, much less endorse, Donald Trump for president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton.”
But, in their support of Trump, many others have gone from saying ‘yes, poor character disqualifies a person from elected office’ to saying ‘no, it does not.’ Ed Stetzer clearly diagnoses this problem:
“That’s the definition of selling out.”
Many evangelical Christians see this current race as a “must-win” election . . . and that’s a problem. Because—as those who have placed our faith and trust in the hope of the world, Jesus Christ—there is no must-win election. The only must-win battle has already been won. Victory is assured. Christ will enact the victory when he returns. And let’s remember just what this victory entails. This victory isn’t merely about going to heaven or hell; no, this victory is the answer to everything wrong with our society now. Christ’s victory is the answer to injustice and corruption and immorality and fear. It’s the only real answer, the only real victory. That’s why it’s good news.
Does this mean we shouldn’t try to make things better in this life? Of course not. We’re to be salt and light. We should seek to make positive change wherever we have opportunity. But we must never expect that we are the ones who will make everything right. And we shouldn’t presume that God intends to win the victory now through us. We are to faithfully shine the light in the darkness, but we are not the ones who conquer the darkness. That is neither our responsibility nor our role.
God has placed us behind enemy lines. We are in the world. And don’t forget the United States is not a part of the kingdom of God; it’s a part of the world. There will be times when we’ll have a positive influence for good in our nation, and that’s a cause for rejoicing. But we shouldn’t be surprised or disheartened if the darkness is sometimes resurgent. It’s not our job to defeat the darkness, but to shine the light within it.
Could God put a stop to abortion immediately?
Could God put a stop to abortion immediately? Of course he could. Just as he could immediately stop all injustice, all corruption, all pain and suffering. Why doesn’t he? The extremely short answer is that he has a plan. His plan leads to victory over all evil. But at this time he allows the world the freedom to destroy themselves. This can be almost unbearably ugly and heartbreaking. So we do what we can to influence our society for good, but we realize these micro-victories are fleeting and easily undone. We know our victory will not be won now. Even in our sorrow for our society and for those who are horribly mistreated, we are not distraught or despairing. We don’t act out of frenzied desperation. Because our hope is not a temporary, heavily-contested victory now. Our hope is not in the latest “must-win” election. No, our hope is in God, in his plan, and in his victory.
We don’t have to win now.
But we do have to be faithful now, to remain who we are, to remain salt and light . . . to remain true to our convictions.
We must never sacrifice our convictions.
Not for anyone.
Two days ago, I posted a link to a recent Christianity Today editorial (Speak Truth to Trump). Christianity Today, established by Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders in 1956, is as close to an official evangelical magazine as you can get. Andy Crouch, writing for the editorial board, begins by noting that Christianity Today has always remained neutral in past elections. But, like many pastors and leaders, they feel the need to speak out this year:
“Just because we are neutral, however, does not mean we are indifferent.”
He describes the absolute rulership of Christ, and the implications for his followers:
“The lordship of Christ places constraints on the way his followers involve themselves, or entangle themselves, with earthly rulers.”
Crouch reminds us of the danger of being so involved in worldly rulers that it becomes idolatrous.
The editorial then briefly reviews the problems with the two major party candidates, beginning with Clinton and then continuing with Trump. Crouch observes that, while criticism of Clinton is very common among evangelical Christians, many have not “shown the same critical judgment when it comes to the Republican nominee.” He lists again some of the obvious red flags regarding his character (which I’ve briefly described here, here, and here), and then concludes of Trump:
“He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.”
Crouch notes that most Christians who support Trump are doing so “with reluctant strategic calculation.” This strategic calculation is focused on the appointment of Supreme Court justices and the impact on vital constitutional issues such as the sanctity of life and marriage, and religious freedom. Crouch then returns to the danger of idolatry in our current situation. This key point is so crucial, I’m going to quote the entire paragraph. I would encourage all of us—especially evangelical supporters of Trump—to consider this carefully:
“But there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.”
A question I have repeatedly asked is: Does God need Donald Trump? By insisting that we must vote for Trump for the sake of the unborn children (and to preserve religious liberty), are we not implying that—at this time—Donald Trump is necessary, that he is needed? Are we claiming that unless we vote for this morally vile candidate, there is no hope for the children or the church? What does this say about our trust in God?
Are we claiming that unless we vote for this morally vile candidate,
there is no hope for the children or the church?
What does this say about our trust in God?
Here’s the view of the editors of Christianity Today:
“Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.”
Please notice the wording in that last sentence. If voting for Trump is imperative for evangelical Christians, then we are putting our trust in his rule. Such trust is tragically misplaced. And as these editors, I, and many others have warned, this will have devastating consequences to our witness to the world. (Anyone paying attention to social media will see that it already is.)
A new single-issue voter
Many readers will be familiar with the concept of a “single-issue voter.” These aren’t people who are concerned with only one issue, but those who view one issue as of paramount importance. This
doesn’t mean hasn’t meant they’ll vote for just anyone who expresses support for their key issue, but they refuse to consider someone who doesn’t share their viewpoint. Not supporting their position on this single issue is seen as a deal-breaker, distinguishing candidates they can support from those they cannot. For many evangelical voters, this single issue has been the sanctity of life and opposition to legalized abortion.
I’m proposing a new single issue. I say we shouldn’t even consider supporting a candidate who doesn’t have a basic personal decency, who isn’t an essentially moral, trustworthy person. Bad character should be automatically disqualifying regardless of the positions the candidate claims to support. If a candidate seriously lacks good character, their claimed positions are worthless. Treating the claims of dishonorable, unprincipled people as if they are worthy of serious consideration—even defending them!—lends credibility to unscrupulous people and makes us co-conspirators in their duplicity. I say if a candidate is someone who even the world widely views as a person of poor character, then we should not even consider such a candidate as worthy of evangelical support . . . . . . unless we are more trusting in the American political system to protect us and bring about societal change than we are the power of God.
In times of trouble, Israel often looked to earthly powers for help rather than relying on God—and God judged them for it. Christians have also misplaced their trust in worldly rulers before, whether it was the early church putting their trust in Constantine or German churches putting their trust in Hitler in the 1930s. We need to be very clear about our Christian priorities, and with whom we can and cannot ally ourselves. As Peter Berger once wrote: “He who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon.” Or as Scripture itself makes so clear:
Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers.
How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness?
How can light live with darkness?
2 Corinthians 6:14
Are God’s people trying to advance the light by partnering with darkness? May it never be!
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.
This morning I reread this excellent editorial from Christianity Today (long considered the flagship publication of the evangelical movement). These thoughts are timely ones for us to consider as we draw closer to this election.
As a non-profit journalistic organization, Christianity Today is doubly committed to staying neutral regarding political campaigns—the law requires it, and we serve our readers best when we give them the information and analysis they need to make their own judgments.
Just because we are neutral, however, does not mean we are indifferent. . . .
Finish this article here:
For my thoughts on this article and related issues, see my next post.